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Hundreds of healthcare workers file religious exemptions after federal vaccine mandate

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Posted at 8:40 PM, Sep 12, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- President Biden issued a mandate last week for all federal workers, including healthcare workers, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Even in San Diego, hundreds are requesting religious exemptions not to get vaccinated

But what exactly does that mean?

“It just means that you cannot be subject to termination or other discipline for refusing to get vaccination the way you could be if your objection was not religiously based or not tied to a disability or medical condition," said legal analyst Dan Eaton. "Religion is personal at the end of the day, but it has to be something more than philosophically personal."

He describes religious exemption as having a religiously based belief inconsistent with vaccination and being able to assert that belief to an employer.

“The vast majority of religions do not prohibit or object to vaccination, so where does that leave someone asserting a religious exemption. What they have to do is articulate something that is tied to some sort of specific religious tenant that makes mandatory vaccination objectionable from a conscientious religiously-based standpoint," said Eaton.

Eaton said it's essentially a term with no clear definition.

"It has to be something that is tied to this idea of the fundamental issues of life and death that is expressed sometimes by symbols, rituals, and the light."

According to a survey released by the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sharp HealthCare has received more than 700 religious exemption requests, UC San Diego Health has received more than 600, and Scripps Health has received more than 400.

ABC 10News asked Eaton to describe the filing process.

"There are no magic words that will either qualify or disqualify someone from asserting the religious exemption," said Eaton, "It has to be tied to religion, but what that exactly means, the law except in very broad terms, has not yet determined."

Eaton said the responsibility falls on employers to either work on accommodating those employees or claim that requests will create a disruptive effect on operations.

"When we are looking at a risk management standpoint, there may be a willingness from employers to accept the risk that someone is going to sue over the religious exemption than to accommodate the willingness of employers to say this would impose an undue burden because of the ongoing impact of this pandemic," Eaton said.

He also stated, "If you are asserting a religious exemption that does not mean that you are asserting a right to be treated the same way as a fully vaccinated individual. What it does mean, perhaps, is that you will be subject to certain restrictions that fully vaccinated people will not be subject to.”

Eaton said it's for that reason that proving undue burden is a complicated process because employers should be able to find accommodations for workers.

In explaining this concept, he shared that while individuals might request the exemption, they might be subject to other conditions because they have requested not to be vaccinated. Those conditions could range from weekly COVID-19 tests, wearing PPE, and changing day-to-day work tasks and activities.

With requests already submitted, the real controversy surrounds legitimacy.

“One of the major tenants to virtually any religion is thou shall not bear false witness. So if people are lying to get a religious exemption that creates a conflict that it is way beyond the law to solve," he said.

Eaton said those who are looking for the exemption must be able to prove something that requires no documentation or referral.

"You don't have to submit something from your religious guide saying that this is inconsistent. It can be personal, but if it's personal it has to be tied to something that is a religious tenant as opposed to a philosophical or political objection to vaccination," according to Eaton.

While Eaton said there is still much to be done on the legal side, requesting exemptions like these should be made in good faith.

"Coronavirus will move faster than the speed of law," said Eaton.